The rushing in Angelina’s ears crescendoed until she was worried they might explode. The living darkness around them seemed to rise around her. Chelsea, Belfry, the platform–they all seemed more and more distant as the dark engulfed her.
She was faintly aware of Chelsea reaching out for her and reached back, taking her friend’s hand, only to feel the hand dissolve into thin ribbons that writhed between her fingers as they shrunk into nothing.
She reached for her locket and felt the pendant sublimate into nothing in her hand.
There was nothing left surrounding Angelina. There were only the pendulums.
“Chelsea!” she screamed.
Even her voice seemed to splinter into ribbons, lost in the sound of the pendulums.
Then the rest of her began to splinter away, outer layers unraveling into snaking streamers–first her body, then her identity. Her very essence, everything that made her Angelina Bianchi, abandoned her to slither away into the dark until only a kernel was left, made of the parts of her that felt shame, regret, and self-loathing.
She was concentrated self-condemnation, dark blue and pulsing with the same cold glow that had signaled the Zogzhesh’s arrival. She was reduced to the core of a dying star, a faint point of light slowly consuming itself alone in deep space.
And the pendulums continued to swing.
This was so much worse than Borgo San Severino. Next to this, that creepy ghost town was a tropical resort.
She watched the thin bands snake away, pieces of herself swallowed by the sickening darkness.
The small part of her that was still lucid thought about her conversation with Chelsea earlier. She hadn’t understood all of it, but Chelsea had said everything had a pattern. Every problem, no matter how weird, surreal, or horrifying, could be solved.
Chelsea was right about everything. Chelsea could get them out of this, if Angelina could only see her.
Angelina’s fading consciousness studied the slithering ribbons, watching and analyzing. It was impossible to say how much time it took her to see the patterns, or if time was even passing in the conventional sense at all.
It was impossibly complex, too much for her to really comprehend, but she knew enough. Maybe someone smart like Chelsea could have explained it, but Angelina couldn’t have put it into words if she had tried. Even so, she recognized it as soon as she saw it.
Her faraway mouth made a triumphant sound, and the sensation reminded of dreaming and being dimly aware she was talking in her sleep.
It was an illusion! It wasn’t real!
She focused on that dying kernel of Angelina, concentrating, trying to break free.
The kernel shattered.
For a moment, she caught a glimpse of what she really was, glowing golden, serene and warm–not a single point floating alone, stranded in frozen space, but a piece of something unfathomably vast.
Then she was small again, just Angelina, standing on a platform in muddy boots and a too-large nightgown, hyper aware of every physical sensation–Belfry’s claws digging into her shoulder, her underwear’s waistband rubbing painfully against the injuries on her hips. She could even feel her bones inside her body, which was a pretty creepy feeling that she wasn’t a fan of at all.
Chelsea stood nearby, motionless, her hand still extended, tears streaming down her face. Angelina took her outstretched hand and squeezed it.
Chelsea didn’t respond.
“C? It’s okay,” said Angelina. “It’s not real.”
Chelsea didn’t even seem to perceive her. Angelina moved closer.
“Chelsea, please. I don’t know what to do.”
What was she supposed to do? She didn’t know how to get out of this creepy snake room. She couldn’t do it on her own.
“Belfry?” she said. “Do you know what we should do?“
The little creature didn’t respond. She could feel him trembling on her shoulder.
The dying blue star thing might have been an illusion, but it had gotten one thing right. She was completely alone after all.
Why wasn’t Chelsea responding? Why couldn’t she snap out of it? Couldn’t she see the illusion and wake up?
Impulsively, without thinking, Angelina closed the distance between herself and her friend, pressing her lips gently to Chelsea’s.
This was absolutely not how she had pictured her first kiss.
Chelsea stirred, blinking away tears as her eyes refocused. She was shaking a little. Angelina threw her arms around her.
“C! You’re okay!”
“What…” Chelsea brushed away a stray tear. “What…”
The mocking hisses sounded around them, but they weren’t as scary anymore. They were an only a trick.
“You dare defy the pendulums of justice, mortal?” hissed Zogzhesh. “Your defiance will cost you dearly.”
“Oh, shut up,” Angelina said.
“Angelina,” Chelsea whispered. “Don’t.”
“It’s fine,” said Angelina. “He’s nothing. He’s just some guy-snake-thing who likes to feel important.”
In the moments after she’d broken open that sad little kernel, she hadn’t just seen herself. She’d those around her too–felt her connection to all three of them, even Zogzhesh.
At his core, he was nothing more than they were. He was scary and commanding and even powerful, but he wasn’t all-powerful. He wasn’t even anything mystical or special–just a member of another sentient species, just some guy who picked on people because he wanted to feel important. It was almost funny. She’d met plenty of humans just like him, and they weren’t so scary. Why should Zogzhesh be any different?
“You dare challenge the almighty Zogzhesh, god of the pendulums of justice?”
“Oh, come on, you’re not the god of anything,” said Angelina. “You’re just some dumb snake guy.”
“Angelina,” said Chelsea, her voice trembling.
“No, C,” said Angelina. “It’s fine. Didn’t you see it? It was all a fake. The pendulums were a trick. It was all a trick!”
“Silence!” barked Zogzhesh. “The mortal mind is not strong enough to escape the judgement of the pendulums!”
“My mind just did, but okay,” said Angelina.
The pendulums’ swinging picked up again, and a far-away look began to fade into Chelsea’s eyes.
“Ha!” said Zogzhesh. “You may have broken free, but the minds of your beloved and your pet are far too weak to resist my divine judgement!”
Her beloved? The pet was obviously Belfry, but who was the beloved he was talking about? Chelsea? It had to be; there was no one else there.
Wait, did that mean this dumb snake guy was calling Chelsea weak-minded? Nuh-uh! Chelsea was the smartest person Angelina knew!
Angelina knew if she just waited a few more seconds, Chelsea would break free of Zogzhesh’s mind games. She would know exactly what to do to get them out of this. She would show that cocky snake-jerk who was weak-minded.
But Angelina didn’t want to wait a few more seconds. She didn’t want to let Chelsea and Belfry spend another minute in that indescribably lonely illusion.
She grabbed Chelsea’s hand and pulled, and Chelsea, half-lucid, followed with mechanical steps.
“Hold on tight, Belfry!” she said.
Standing on the edge of the platform, she wrapped her arms tightly around her friend’s waist. She squeezed her eyes shut and leaned backward, fighting every instinct to catch herself as her sense of equilibrium somersaulted inside her head.
Three points of golden light plummeted into the writhing, alien darkness.